China Rejects WHO Plan for Next Phase of COVID Origins Investigation
Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the National Health Commission, rejecting the WHO strategy at the latest Chinese government press conference on the SARS-CoV2 origins on Thursday, 21 July.

Chinese officials have rejected WHO’s proposal for a more rigorous Phase II investigation of the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus, including renewed consideration that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory, describing the new plan as “impossible” at a press conference.   

“We will not accept such an origin-tracing plan as it, in some aspects, disregards common sense and defies science,” said Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the National Health Commission, at the press conference organized by the Chinese State Council Information Office on Thursday, rejecting the WHO plan out of hand. 

“We hope the WHO would seriously review the considerations and suggestions made by Chinese experts and truly treat the origin tracing of the COVID-19 virus as a scientific matter, and get rid of political interference,” Zeng said.  

 New WHO plan would address omissions of first virus origins mission to Wuhan

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calls for a new approach to the SARS-CoV2 quest and more Chinese “transparency.”

The plan for a revamped second phase of investigations was presented by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to member states at a closed-door meeting last week. 

WHO’s new and tougher strategy, includes the creation of an international Scientific Advisory Group on Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) to replace the international group that led the first mission to Wuhan in January 2021. 

That first mission yielded a report that was widely criticized as papering over Chinese data omissions. It also failed to carefully consider the hypotheses that the virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) that was researching bat coronaviruses – a theory that dozens of experts around the world say remains just as plausible as the theory that the virus escaped somewhere along the food chain – until more evidence is gathered.

In response to those concerns, WHO now wants to obtain and review more data on Wuhan’s sensitive coronavirus research laboratories, as well as data on wild animal species on sale in 2019 at the city’s live animal markets, to assess the likelihood that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory – as compared to infecting humans via a food-borne source. 

WHO also is requesting more raw data from China on the first COVID patients, and on population-level serology screening in Wuhan, which could lend insight into where and when in 2019 the first COVID cases really began to appear. China had previously refused to provide the data, saying that it violated privacy laws. 

WHO applying more pressure on China

In his remarks last week to member states, Tedros explicitly described the new plan of attack, as including:

  • “First, integrated studies of humans, wildlife, captive and farmed animals, and environment, as part of a One Health approach.
  • “Second, studies prioritizing geographic areas with the earliest indication of circulation of SARS-CoV-2, and neighbouring areas where other SARS-related coronaviruses have been found in non-human reservoirs;
  • “Third, studies of animal markets in and around Wuhan, including continuing studies on animals sold at the Huanan wholesale market;
  • “Fourth, studies related to animal trace-back activities, with additional epidemiology and molecular epidemiology work, including early sequences of the virus;
  • “And fifth, audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019.”

“We expect China to support this next phase of the scientific process by sharing all relevant data in a spirit of transparency. Equally, we expect all Member States to support the scientific process by refraining from politicising it,” Tedros told member states at the closed-door meeting.

In a subsequent media briefing on Thursday, the WHO DG also publicly called upon China to share data more transparently, while acknowledging in the strongest terms to date, the plausibility that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory. 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, guarded by police officers during the visit of the WHO team in early February, 2021.

“There was a premature push to reduce one of the [origins] options, the laboratory theory,” the WHO DG said, referring to the report on the virus origins that came out of the WHO-led mission to Wuhan in January. “I was a lab technician myself, an immunologist, and have worked in the lab and lab accidents happen.”

While WHO’s new move has been criticized by China, it has been applauded by former critics of the global health agency.

Last week, Tedros showed tremendous courage when he called on the Chinese government to be more transparent in the sharing of raw data,” Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and one of the co-authors of a series of open scientific letters that criticized the WHO-led investigation for inadequately exploring the possibility that the SARS-CoV2 could have “escaped” from the WIV, said in an op-ed published on CNN.

“Given the leadership and moral courage Tedros has shown by calling for a full examination into the pandemic origins, the United States and its partners around the world must come together in support of the integrity of the WHO and his leadership,” said Metzl. 

China supports conclusions of the first origins report 

The report by the first SARS-CoV2 origins team concluded that of the four possible hypotheses about where the virus originated, the possibility of a laboratory biosafety incident was “extremely unlikely.”

The report generated widespread criticism from member states as well as an ad-hoc group of scientists, who published a series of open letters to WHO detailing how the investigation was limited by China and lacked the data and access necessary to carry out an unrestricted inquiry. 

China, on the other hand, has said that it continues to support the conclusions made by the report. Officials insist that SARS-CoV2 has natural origins, most likely the result of a natural spillover event involving zoonotic transmission.

At a press briefing on 16 July, Zhao Lijian, Spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called on countries to “respect the opinions of scientists and scientific conclusion, instead of politicizing the issue.” 

Zhao Lijian, Spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, at a press conference on 16 July.

In addition, the WIV has not reported any leaks or staff infections since it first opened in 2018, said Chinese officials. 

“We believe a lab leak is extremely unlikely and it is not necessary to invest more energy and efforts in this regard,” said Liang Wannian, the Chinese team leader of the joint WHO-China mission in January, speaking at the State Council Information Office press conference on Thursday. 

Chinese officials express disappointment

Senior Chinese health officials have expressed keen disappointment with the new WHO approach. 

“I was surprised when I saw WHO’s origin-tracing plan for the second phase,” said Zeng, at the Thursday media event. “The plan has set the assumption of China leaking the virus due to violating research instructions as one of the research priorities. We can’t possibly accept such a plan for investigating the origins.” 

At yesterday’s conference, the Chinese panelists proposed an alternative approach to the second phase of the investigation, focusing on zoonotic transmission and investigating early cases in other countries.

A panel of senior Chinese health officials discussed the COVID-19 origin investigation at a press conference on Thursday organized by the State Council Information Office.

“In the next step, I think animal tracing should be the priority direction,” said Liang. “It is the most valuable field for our efforts.”

“The second phase of origin-tracing should be extended on the basis of the first phase, guided by the relevant WHO resolutions, and carried out after full discussion and consultation among member states,” said Zhao, in a separate press briefing yesterday organized by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“The work that has already been done in the first phase should not be repeated, especially when a clear conclusion has been reached,” Zhao added. “Instead, we should promote origin-tracing on the basis of full and extensive consultations among member states, including search of early cases in various places and countries around the world.”

Chinese officials call for investigation into US military lab

In an attempt to deflect attention and blame, Chinese authorities also have tried to suggest that the virus could also have escaped from a laboratory in the Untied States, pointing in particular to the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

Chinese officials have suggested that the US should invite an international team of scientists to conduct an independent investigation into Fort Detrick.

Conspiracies, largely peddled by Chinese officials, continue to swarm around Fort Detrick, with reports of some five million people in China signing a petition calling on WHO to investigate the bio-lab.

“What dark secrets are hidden out of sight at Fort Detrick?” asked Zhao at a press briefing on Wednesday. 

“Facing the 630,000 American lives lost to the coronavirus, the US should be transparent, take concrete measures to thoroughly investigate the origins of the virus at home, thoroughly investigate the reason of its botched response and who should be held accountable, thoroughly investigate the mysteries over Fort Detrick and its over 200 overseas bio labs,” said Zhao. 

The prominent military germ lab was temporarily shut down in 2019 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) because it didn’t have “sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater” from its highest-security labs.

The lab reopened in March 2020 and was accompanied by an announcement from officials that no dangerous pathogens had escaped the lab.

US ‘deeply disappointed’ with China’s response

“[China’s] position is irresponsible and frankly dangerous,” said Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary on Thursday at a press briefing“We are deeply disappointed.”

“Alongside other member states around the world we continue to call for China to provide the needed access to data and samples, and this is critical so we can understand and prevent the next pandemic,” Psaki said.

Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, at a press briefing on Thursday.

Relations between the US and China have suffered as a result of the probe, increasing tensions between the nations. 

“This is about saving lives in the future and it’s not a time to be stonewalling,” said Psaki.

In late May, US President, Joe Biden, instructed the country’s scientific and intelligence communities to investigate and publish a report on the pandemic’s origins by late August. One of the theories being examined is the possibility that the novel coronavirus emerged from a lab accident. 

“I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days,” said Biden. 

The US has expressed its dissatisfaction with the joint origins investigation, describing the report as “insufficient and inconclusive” in late May. The Biden Administration even appears to be positioning itself to take independent action if the WHO investigative process doesn’t succeed. 

Unfortunately, phase one…did not yield the data and access from China that we think is necessary,” said Psaki. “But [the US] support[s]…the phase two plan…because it’s rigorous and science-based.”

Experts express concern over the future of the origins investigation

China’s refusal to participate in WHO’s next phase of the origin probe is “outrageous & absolutely unacceptable,” tweeted Metzl. 

According to Metzel, the “process has been compromised from the very beginning,” he told CNN.

The joint study by the international committee and their Chinese counterparts was agreed upon at the World Health Assembly last year, which gave the Chinese government a certain degree of control over the process.

“It’s been clear from day one that the Chinese have no interest in a full investigation into the pandemic origins and…they’ve been doing everything possible to block that,” Metzl said. 

Given the critical importance of fully investigating the origin of Covid-19 and preventing future pandemics, China’s rejection of a full investigation poses a threat to the world that cannot be tolerated,” said Metzel in an op-ed on CNN. 

An alternative strategy is needed to conduct the SARS-CoV2 investigation without China’s cooperation. This will require the US and its partners both to support the WHO-organized process and set up a separate mechanism for an in-depth probe, said Metzl. 

The US should involve the Group of 7 (G7), an intergovernmental political forum for the world’s seven largest advanced economies, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries, or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 37 member countries that develop economic and social policy.

Although not having full access to all of the relevant resources in China would hamper this investigation, a great deal of progress can be made by pooling efforts, accessing materials available outside of China, and creating secure whistleblower provisions empowering Chinese experts to share information,” said Metzl.

“The international community must proceed with a forensic investigation, with or without China’s cooperation,” Dr Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told Health Policy Watch.

“Many threads of forensic investigation are available outside China. In particular, information relevant to the origin of SARS-CoV-2 may exist at the US-based research partner of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (EcoHealth Alliance), at the US-government research funders of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and EcoHealth Alliance (USAID, DTRA, DARPA, DHS, and NIH), and at the US- and UK-based scientific publishers that handled publications of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and EcoHealth Alliance (Springer-Nature, Lancet, and PLoS),” Ebright added.

Creation of new body and expert group to investigate disease origins

In the meeting with WHO member states last week, Dr Tedros announced the establishment of a new body to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV2 and future pandemics.

The permanent International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), which will be composed of experts nominated by member states, will “play a vital role in the next phase of studies into the origins of SARS-CoV2,” said Tedros. 

“The world needs a more stable and predictable framework for studying origins of new pathogens with epidemic or pandemic potential,” said Tedros.

“Finding where this virus came from is essential not just for understanding how the pandemic started and preventing future outbreaks, but it’s also important as an obligation to the families of the 4 million people who have lost someone they love, and the millions who have suffered,” said Tedros.

WHO will launch an open call for nominations for “highly qualified” members of the new advisory group from member states.

Image Credits: China Daily, WHO, CNN, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, C-Span.

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